Who’s leading for Stanley Cup playoffs MVP? Favorites, alternates and sleepers from the final four

NHL News

Defining “value” in the Stanley Cup playoffs can be challenging. Although apparently not as challenging as defining “possession” in the Western Conference finals, as Edmonton Oilers fans screaming about the NHL’s offside rules after Game 1 will no doubt tell you.

For me, value in the playoffs is a combination of statistical achievement and seizing the moment. I’m not looking for compilers. I’m looking for players making magic when it counts the most. Or, failing that, putting on a performance that’s so historic that it simply can’t be ignored.

Here’s where I think the MVP race stands for the final four teams, from the favorites to the runners-up to the sleepers to … well, the players who should count their sweet blessings that someone else is picking up the slack.

The favorite: Cale Makar

Through 11 games, Makar is the leading scorer for the Avalanche, with 16 points. That includes an overtime game winner in Game 2 against the Nashville Predators in the first round, when Makar set an NHL record for defenseman with 10 points in his first four games of a postseason. He was quieter against the St. Louis Blues, but made his presence known with three points in Game 1 against the Oilers.

If he and Devon Toews are able to have success against Connor McDavid in the conference final, it will only bolster his case. Plus, the voters love the guy: He won the Calder and has been a Norris finalist for the past two years. Although maybe not as much as the NHL video review officials love him.

The alternative: Nathan MacKinnon

It’s basically a dead heat between MacKinnon and Makar. The Avalanche center is tied for second in the playoffs with nine goals and 15 points. It’s a shame that the Blues ruined his signature playoff moment with an overtime rally win in Game 6 of their series, when MacKinnon had four points and completed a hat trick with one of the most spectacular end-to-end goals in Stanley Cup playoff history. That would have been quite a calling card for his Conn case. I do believe the voters like MacKinnon, too, and would gladly give him the Conn Smythe, perhaps to see if he can manage a moment of self-satisfaction and the human smile that accompanies it.

The sleeper pick: Nazem Kadri

Kadri is up to 11 points in the postseason, with six goals. That includes his emotional hat trick in Game 4 against the Blues in the aftermath of those abhorrent racist comments and threats he faced following his collision that injured St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington. A strong conference final showing — he’s off to a good start — could make things interesting. Especially if he continues to stay off the Department of Player Safety docket.

The least valuable: Andre Burakovsky

Burakovsky has five points in nine games, but he’s rocking a minus-20.41 expected goals percentage relative to his teammates. He had his ice time reduced during the second round and was a healthy scratch against the Blues. But Burakovsky has had big postseason moments in the past, as any Washington Capitals fans will testify.

The favorite: Connor McDavid

The Human Cheat Code is now up to 29 points in 13 games, which would rank No. 5 all time for points-per-game average in a single postseason (2.23) behind Wayne Gretzky (1983, 1985, 1988) and Mario Lemieux (1992). That’s the kind of history we’re witnessing here. If you’ve read this space before, you know I’m in full support of Connor McDavid being considered for — and even winning — the Conn Smythe even if the Oilers don’t make the Stanley Cup Final. Unlike other sports, it’s an award for the totality of the playoffs, not just the final round. If anyone could make the extraordinary case that three rounds of dominance are good enough, it would be McJesus. Unless …

The alternative: Leon Draisaitl

… Draisaitl finishes with a higher points-per-game average, and thus makes postseason history in the process, with the fifth-greatest offensive season of all time. The problem for Draisaitl here is the problem for Draisaitl in most seasons: He plays in the shadow of a generational talent who will get the lion’s share of credit for dragging the Oilers by the scruff into the championship rounds. There’s a reason why McDavid has been a four-time Hart Trophy finalist while Draisaitl has been nominated (and won) once. He’s the Pippen to Connor’s Jordan. Or maybe it’s the Jagr to McDavid’s Mario?

The sleeper pick: Mike Smith

Everyone’s favorite Agent of Chaos was pulled in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, which means by the law of Mike Smith he’ll respond with four straight shutouts. Maximum chaos would be the NHL’s most maligned goaltender winning playoff MVP over a generational talent, and hence extremely on brand for Mike Smith. (Who, we should say, remains fifth in goals saved above expected for the postseason in spite of that Game 1 outing.)

The least valuable: Josh Archibald

Archibald has a minus-23.74 expected goals percentage relative to his teammates, and has been cratered to the tune of minus-50 in scoring chance differential. He’s skating 9:47 per game and has been outscored by Zack Kassian. Good times.

The favorite: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe in 2020. Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe in 2021. If the Lightning three-peat, it’s time for Kucherov to get his supper. (And by supper, we mean a cooler filled with cans of Bud Light, of course.) Kuch leads the Lightning in scoring in the playoffs, and has been as good at even strength as he’s been on the power play. Worth it for the postseries victory speech, as we saw last season.

The alternative: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Winning back-to-back playoff MVP awards isn’t impossible. We saw Sidney Crosby win the Conn Smythe that should have gone to Phil Kessel in 2016 and then one that was more rightly deserved in 2017. It’s also not unheard of for a goalie to win two straight, as Philadelphia Flyers legend Bernie Parent did in 1974 and 1975. Vasilevskiy has been incredible again for the Bolts, including his continued dominance in games when Tampa Bay has eliminated opponents. The Big Cat’s Conn Smythe case could increase considerably if he outduels likely Vezina winner and countryman Igor Shesterkin in the conference final.

The sleeper pick: Ross Colton

I know I’m supposed to talk about Colton’s offensive output and how he’s become the fulcrum for another great Lightning checking line. But I’m a little distracted because Colton, like me, grew up a New Jersey Devils fan. He said before Game 1 that he used to take the train in from Jersey to see the Devils play the Rangers at MSG, which means he’s a Devils fan trying to eliminate the Rangers from the playoffs, which is some kind of wild hockey fantasy camp scenario for any NJD fan.

But beyond that, he recalled watching Adam Henrique‘s goal to eliminate the Rangers at a Sweet 16 party in 2012, and folks, I felt seen. I remember watching Game 2 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Final at a friend’s Sweet 16 in Jersey, as the Devils fans at the party found a TV in a random room of the rental hall to watch the game while everyone else was doing the “Electric Slide.” Anyway, Ross Colton for Conn Smythe.

The least valuable: Cal Foote

The Lightning have very, very few candidates for this award. So we’ll go with defenseman Foote, who has a minus-10 expected goals percentage relative to his teammates and is underwater in shot attempts and scoring chances at 5-on-5 while averaging fewer than 12 minutes of ice time per game.

The favorite: Igor Shesterkin

The Rangers don’t hesitate to call the 26-year-old goalie their best player, nor should they hesitate. He needed to find his playoff bearings in the first round, including two ghastly games in Pittsburgh that saw him pulled twice. But he has been in Vezina form since then, including two Game 7 wins. Just a stellar postseason for him, including the fact that he had as many points (three) as Kaapo Kakko through 14 games.

The alternative: Adam Fox

Fun fact: When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, it wasn’t Mike Richter that won the Conn Smythe. It was defenseman Brian Leetch, who led the team in scoring. It’s hard to imagine the Rangers winning the Cup and Shesterkin not getting the credit, but if Fox can lead the team in points while skating more than 26 minutes per game and playing solid defense, there might be a lane there.

The sleeper pick: Chris Kreider

Mika Zibanejad has been the Rangers’ most productive forward from a points perspective, but Kreider had the team lead in goals after two rounds. Sometimes it’s not about how many points you score, but when you score them: Kreider had two goals in Game 6 and another in Game 7 against the Penguins; he had an assist in Game 6 and two goals in Game 7 against the Hurricanes.

The least valuable: Ryan Reaves

Look, we all love Reavo. He throws the body and brings the thunder at news conferences. But he’s also an ineffective 5-on-5 player on a team that already struggles at 5-on-5, and he couldn’t prevent the Canes’ shenanigans after Game 3 from happening despite being on the ice. You had one job!

That’s the Conn Smythe Watch as the third round begins. We’re sure the picture will change dramatically by the start of the Stanley Cup Final. Or we can just give it to Jake Oettinger for what he did for the Dallas Stars in the first round and call it a day …

Jersey Fouls of the week

From … oh, it’s me.

This Carolina Hurricane Foul manages to nod to both Deadpool’s color scheme and sophisticated humor. But given that the primary superpower of the “Merc With The Mouth” is an accelerated healing factor, that should come in handy to bend a heart shattered into a million pieces by the ineptitude of one’s team in a Game 7 on home ice.

Video of the week

The first time I met Dave Jackson in Bristol, he was over in the corner of the studio actually reading the NHL rulebook. It seemed so delightfully cliché for an ex-NHL referee that I knew I was going to like the guy immediately.

He released this video breaking down the Cale Makar play from Game 1 between the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers that had half the hockey world screaming about a miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Oilers. It does a good job explaining why the call on the ice was correct and was upheld by the NHL situation room, even if it absolutely failed the eye test.

As usual, a lot of the fury about this decision was stoked by a misinterpretation of the rulebook. Specially, the part of Rule 83.3 that states “if, during the course of the delayed off-side, any member of the attacking team touches the puck [or] attempts to gain possession of a loose puck” then the linesman stops play for an offside violation.

A lot of fans thought this part of the rule applied to Makar, but it applied only to teammate Valeri Nichushkin, who was tagging up on the delayed offside. As the invaluable hockey site Scouting The Refs notes, this isn’t the first time a challenge like this on a play like that failed.

Anyway, all of this brings us back to an inevitable truth, which is that we should just stop reviewing offside plays. Pucks crossing the goal line? Yes. Goalie interference? Yes. Delay of game calls that are missed before a goal? Sure. But despite the attempt at specificity in the rulebook, offside remains a subjective call that’s subject to human error. It also frequently has nothing to do with the goal that’s scored, like 90 seconds after the missed call by a linesman, wherein a defending team has all manner and sort of opportunity to clear the zone.

In the NFL, if the officials miss a false start before a touchdown, they don’t review it. It’s just a botched call that had minimal effect on the overall play. And so it should be in the NHL.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Jason Spezza

The retirement of Jason Spezza is one of those moments when the hockey world could celebrate the career of a great player and a good dude. We enjoyed this take: “To Kids Growing Up in the 2000s, Jason Spezza Made the Sens Cool.” Which is pretty difficult!

Loser: Jordan Binnington

While we appreciate the candor in explaining why he threw an empty water bottle at Nazem Kadri during a postgame interview, saying it was “a God-given opportunity” to “[give him] something to think about” makes it sound as if God really needs to be more judicious with handing out those opportunities.

Winner: This commercial

Look, it’s not a perfect ad — the Detroit Red Wings erasure was a little weird! — but we’re suckers for anything that highlights the timeless nature of the Stanley Cup to each generation of champions.

Loser: This cursed image

Even if they’re not intense rivals anymore, we can’t have Sidney Crosby passing the Cup to someone who prevented his team from three-peating. It’s like seeing Liam Gallagher hand a platinum album to Damon Albarn. Plus, Sid would have 100% made Chris Kunitz do this instead.

Winner: Martin St. Louis

We’re still processing the journey for Martin St. Louis from Hockey Hall of Fame player to local hockey coach to interim head coach of the Montreal Canadiens — without ever having been behind an NHL bench! — to a multiyear contract as head coach in Montreal. As he has shown throughout his career, never underestimate Martin St. Louis.

Loser: Lack of goal scorers

Listening to Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour after the team’s elimination, it’s clear he felt Carolina lacked an elite goal scorer who would have made a difference in the Game 7 loss to the Rangers. That should be Andrei Svechnikov, but he had four goals in 14 playoff games.

In a sense, the Hurricanes and Florida Panthers — who wasted over 30 power plays waiting for a goal scorer who never showed up — ended up in the same place at the end of the second round. And we don’t just mean on the outside looking in.

Winner: Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres joined the Buffalo Bills and the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits to sell “Choose Love” shirts that raised over $1 million to support the East Buffalo community and victims impacted by the mass shooting last month. Well done.

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